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In Amherst visit, Sen. Elizabeth Warren cites UMass affordability model



Thursday, January 23, 2014
AMHERST — Continuing efforts she is pursuing in Washington to reduce the financial burden on college students, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren will file a bill to refinance student loan debt.

At a meeting Wednesday afternoon with University of Massachusetts students and Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy at the flagship campus, Warren promised to introduce legislation that would refinance $1.2 trillion in student loan debt.

“Student loan debt is a strong stimulus for the economy if we refinance that debt,” Warren said. “For me, it’s both an economic and moral issue.”

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The roundtable with students took place during Warren’s first visit to the Amherst campus, part of an initiative titled “Priorities for the Future.” While on campus, Warren also took a tour of the Integrated Sciences Building, where professors outlined some of the collaborations that exist between their research and private industry.

Keith Lema, a junior economics and political science major from Easton, said he appreciates that Warren has used her tenure in Washington to focus on college affordability.

“It’s really great to know, as someone young and at college, that I have someone in my corner,” Lema said.

“She’s one of the few providing a voice to this issue,” said Leo Sheehan, a senior from Raynham who is pursuing a double major in public health and kinesiology.

In her meeting with students, Warren noted that the interest payments on this debt will account for $185 billon in profit for the federal government over the next 10 years.

“That’s just fundamentally wrong,” Warren said. “College students should not be subsidizing big industry.”

But to accomplish these objectives, Warren said she will need the support of students and many others. A bill she co-sponsored with fellow Democratic Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Dick Durbin of Illinos, aimed at controlling the costs of higher education, has already become a fight, she noted.

Subbaswamy assured her that UMass students are ready to support her legislation. “Believe me, these are very activist students,” he said.

Warren said colleagues in the Senate will fear the legislation because of a potential loss of revenue. However, she sees this as an economic stimulus that will allow students to more quickly purchase cars and homes when they leave college.

Hannah Locke, a hospital and tourism senior from Hanover, came to UMass, in part, because she will be able to leave with a degree and fewer loans than if she had attended a private school.

“Getting an apartment, getting a car, is a lot more possible for me because I’m not going to be weighed down by that debt,” Locke said.

Warren cited the UMass campus as a model for investing in public universities and keeping higher education costs down while getting the right level of accountability. She praised UMass for being in line with the concept of ensuring students are earning bachelor’s degrees within four years.

“The greatest thing we can do in terms of controlling costs is to have students graduate in a timely way,” Warren said.

Subbaswamy cited statistics showing that 66 percent of students are completing degrees in four years, compared to just 56 percent four years ago. The UMass goal is to get this number to 82 percent.

One means of accomplishing this is through more team-based learning, such as the Academic Classroom Building under construction, Subbaswamy said. There, lecture halls filled with 80 students become a team-based environment by having areas where faculty can interact with smaller groups of students.

Even with the work UMass has done in controlling costs, Subbaswamy said, more than eight in 10 students will graduate with some outstanding loans. He urged Warren to focus on keeping interest rates under control.

Students who met with Warren appeared optimistic about UMass and cited the relatively inexpensive tuition as a reason for coming to Amherst.

Alex Estrella, a junior nursing major from Berkley, said UMass offered him an affordable education and a place he could leave with skills that would make him employable.

“That’s something that draws a lot of other similar students, as well,” Estrella said.

Sheehan said he appreciates that UMass does not overburden its in-state students. “I think that’s where UMass excels,” Sheehan said.

Warren said that investing in higher education is essential in this century, as the demographics of the United States continue to get older and there shouldn’t be an expectation that people work until they are 85.

“By the year 2020, two-thirds of all jobs in America will require a college diploma,” Warren said. But projections show that the country will be 5 million short of this without changes to financing higher education.

Warren cited her own experience of paying little to attend community college, noting that three-quarters of college costs used to be picked up by the state, a burden now shifted to students. “It’s really a case of I grew up in a time when America was investing in people like me,” Warren said.

Also during her tour, Warren got a look inside the laboratory of Sandra Petersen, a professor of veterinary and animal science.

Patty Freedson, chairwoman of the kinesiology department, discussed the concepts behind “wearable sensors” and described how these devices can be used to better understand people with conditions such as osteoarthritis and diabetes. Professors at UMass are interacting with corporations that can help fund continued research and new discoveries.

Warren said she supports doubling the funding for the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, which not only would provide money for research into illnesses such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s, but is also an economic engine.

“America has long been in partnership with universities about how to build a future,” Warren said.